This is Week 22 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week the topic is wills and intestacies. I’d love it if you would join in and either comment or post on your experiences with wills around the world.
Before we go much further I need to put in a disclaimer: I am not an expert in wills. Try as I will (pardon the pun), but I forever feel I’m out of my depth with the legal aspects of the process of wrapping up an estate. That over, let’s bite the bullet and get on with it. Today the focus is on the will itself, and next week we’ll move to the other probate documents and deceased estates.
My guess is that wills are high on the hunting list for most family historians. We long to see our ancestor’s signature and know how he/she distributed his worldly belongings. Of course the downside is that we tend to assume that if we know our ancestors were working class people, that they won’t have anything to dispense, and so they’ll have left no will for us to unearth. It’s equally likely that they may have omitted to write a will through neglect or delayed intentions, and that the value of their estate means there will be letters of administration or intestacies. Both areas need searching, and both can be valuable.
No doubt it’s for this reason that many archives make indexing their will collection a priority, and other indexes are also online (you might need to search for ecclesiastical files). This summary from the State Library of Queensland is useful for Australian sources. Along with the wills held in the public records offices you may find other documents, too, such as copies of the person’s death notice (cheaper to get a photocopy or photograph than to order the certificate).
One piece of advice that I would give when dealing with wills is to first make a copy or two. If it’s an old will I might also transcribe it, for ease of reading later on. With a really complex will I’ve made my own summary as well (not a straight transcription), analysing what’s in the will.
With your copy I would split your investigations into two parts:
- Highlight or document the different bequests in the will: the charities or individuals that have been chosen to receive money. Also make note of the executors’ names. You may recognise many of them straight away, but you will want to investigate the potential relationships of others. It’s probably a good time to warn of not making assumptions.
- Highlight other aspects of the will: there are clues there that may provide future research paths –not always, but don’t just blip over the background bits and shine the light only on the beneficiaries.
It’s worth noting that not all wills find their way into the archives. Depending on the value of the estate, the will may remain with the relevant solicitor. The person may also have passed on the major part of their estate prior to death. For example, my 2xgreat grandfather George Mathias Kunkel sold his land and property to his youngest son about six years before his death. I suspect that it came with an unofficial agreement that George and his wife Mary would continue to live with them. Once again he’d used Michael O’Sullivan, solicitor of Toowoomba for the land transaction and I suspect this is where his will would have been as well. Queensland State Archives provides a useful guide here.
Wills can vary from the simplest to the complex: a simple “I leave all my worldly wealth to my wife/family” through to a multi-page document with complicated provisions. In my own collection I have both types and a few between. And then as you go back through the centuries you reach those ones written in secretary hand (another of my weak points). What I find intriguing about those is the prelude in religious language, making provision for their interment and submitting their souls to God.
When I was researching East Clare emigrants, I ordered the LDS film of Limerick District Wills. Some of these wills provided interesting insights, not just to the intra-family inheritances and dynamics, but also to emigration decisions. For example, Michael McNamara of Kilfenora, West Clare, made provision for £20 to be inherited by his eldest son “in the event of his being emigrating (sic) to some foreign land such as America or Australia”, while Henry and Pierce Nihil, were left a share of their mother’s “house property land stock money furniture etc” if they “should ever return from Australia” but no provision was made for them if they remained overseas. I did feel sorry for the poor man who had obviously done too good a job of promoting his successes in his new land: the father left him his love and a blessing from afar.
One of the things I like about using a microfilm or original record is that serendipity lets you find odds and ends that you’ll never find if you only search for a specific name. You may find so much more than you bargained for.
What are your experiences with wills and intestacies? Have you made any astonishing discoveries as a result? Have I made any mistakes here? If so please do let me know so it can be corrected.
NEXT WEEK: PROBATE AND DECEASED ESTATES
 Will of 6 July 1876, Limerick District Wills 1876-1888, Microfilm 100947,Church ofJesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. However he too only leaves money to his other son, who was “presently out of the country” should he “again return”.
 Will of Honora Nihil, of Killaloe, Barony of Tulla, Clare. Dated 18 August 1877. Limerick District Wills 1876-1888, Microfilm 100947, Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Honora Nihil of Killaloe, Lower Tulla, left all her “world house property land stock money furniture etc” to her daughter, Eliza, but if her two brothers “Henry and Pierce should ever return from Australia all is to be divided equally” or “if only one returns, then he is to get 1/3” and “Eliza to have the remaining 2/3”. Henry and Pierce arrived in Australia on the Maitland in 1856. Henry appears to have died in Sydney in 1905. (NSW Births Deaths and Marriages indexes 11468/1905). John also died in Sydney (NSW BDM 11944/1989). Neither appears to have married.